Wednesday, 2 September 2009

14. Of oysters and folklore..

Another day we decided to go to "Les Halles", the food market in Bayonne on the banks of the Nive; however, when we arrived there, we found ourselves in an area we hadn’t been to before and there were quite a few cafes with tables outside built on to the market that were serving seafood and oysters. Lots of people were sat out quaffing oysters and white wine so we sat at a table in the sunshine.
Covered market (Halles de Bayonne), Bayonne
They had a good little menu – they were offering half a dozen oysters and a glass of white for 7.20€ - that’s about £4.95 - so we had a dozen oysters between us. But only 3 worked…! (Sid James laugh!) They were No 3s.. & slightly larger than the No 4s that we normally have – they were bigger and deeper – and after four, Madame had had enough. I always find with oysters that, after I’ve had a few, my imagination starts to take over and I start thinking about what I’m putting in my mouth. It’s fatal to look too closely at them…! I just managed to finish off the rest - in line with the time honoured family motto – “Operor non licentia quisquam in vestri patella vos ingratus parum uredo” - which roughly translates as “Don’t leave anything on your plate, you ungrateful little bleeder  blighter”! After the oysters we had some local paté, with crusty bread and a salad.

Following this bijou snackette, we drove to Hasparren, which is another typical Basque village about 10-15 miles from where we are. When we arrived there at 3pm, it seemed like the whole village had turned out in black for a funeral in the big church that dominated the centre.

The clock struck three and then the bells started a funereal tolling… and those words by John Donne sprung to mind - “No man is an island, entire of itself... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This quote has always had a resonance with me for some reason. Wish I could remember the entire thing. There wasn’t much going on in Hasparren (what with the entire village being at the funeral) so after looking around, we headed for home.

One Sunday, we went to a festival in Bernadette & Philippe's village when they bring all the pottoks (wild mountain horses) down from the mountains for the winter and run them through the streets. It was a huge all day event with all kinds of folklorique things going on. The previous weekend we'd been at the restaurant when they'd asked us if we were going to be going be there for lunch on the following Sunday because apparently the village always gets invaded by hordes of beret-toting Basques (and we’d have to book early) and the festival goes on all day and night. They advised us to get there by 9am just to be able to park…! All the restaurants serve the same menu that day – and all we knew was that it was going to be based on apples.

Mme D gave us another 6 fresh eggs plus some more of her fresh sweet green peppers that she grows. Madame made one of her award-winning “6 egger” omelettes (cries of “You’ll be egg-bound!” or “You’ll get boils!” from the wings) with the green peppers in - which we eased down with some very inky red wine from Cahors – which we'd found somewhere at ~£2 a bottle.

Another Sunday morning came – and what was special about this one was the Sunday morning hunting… It sounded like November 5th as I walked up the hill with the dog… there were single bangs, double bangs in quick succession and then what sounded like a bad night in Baghdad as local hunters attempted to blow the wings off a sparrow or summat using what sounded like a belt-fed mortar.. The bangs were coming from all around and ranged from the deafeningly near to the barely audible..

We arrived at 'our' village on the Sunday just as they were diverting traffic around it because they were expecting big crowds.. We started off in the bar in the restaurant where we had a coffee and a croissant – although others were already into the armagnac - at 9am..


In the field next to the restaurant a marquee had been set up and filled with benches and tables where the feeding of the 5,000 was going to take place later on. They had all the local varieties of cattle and sheep in pens and many of the people were in traditional costume. Some real Basque faces there. There were drums and fifes going off all over the place. While we were waiting for the thunder of hooves, there were a few demonstrations of Basque country dancing and you could see parallels with some English country dancing. There was one where they danced with sticks – a bit like Morris dancing but minus the sheer entertainment value.

One troupe looked really weird.. They had conical hats on their heads that must have been 3 feet high, a shaggy sheepskin top with 2 enormous cow bells tied behind their backs and they adopted a funny high-stepping walk in order to make these bells clang with each step.. (and I’ve missed out a lot of detail here). Edited to add: I've since found out that they are called "Bellringers" or Joaldunak in Basque:
This really has the look of a unique culture that owes nothing at all to the rest of western Europe..
Pottoks
Then a few horsemen and –women came galloping down the hill, followed by a number of horsemen from the Camargue area of France. They were using saddles that looked like they'd originated in the Middle Ages – these had the high backs and fronts like the knights of old used to have. They were dressed in dark suits, they were all moustachioed and all wore low crowned, wide brimmed black trilbies.. Who was the spiv in "Dad’s Army"..? Private Walker - yes, him! They all looked like him.. “Spivs on Horseback!” Then about a couple of hundred horses came galloping down the narrow lane – it was quite a sight.. After that, we went for a walk around the village as we’d been standing in one spot for too long. Jumpy leg!

When we got back, it was time to ease our way into the restaurant for lunch. It was fully booked, inside and out. Luckily, they’d reserved us a table outside on the terrace but thankfully in the shade as it was very hot by this stage. They gave us a strong cider with something added to it which knocked us out.. phew! People were being turned away in droves. Because of the numbers, all the restaurants in the village were serving the same meal – local lamb. While we were having lunch we could hear the presentation of prizes over the tannoy and the big prizes were given away by Michelle Alliot-Marie. We saw her in Biarritz years ago when she was the mayor there and I remember thinking at the time that she had star quality and that she’d go far. She’s now the Minister for the Interior* (equivalent to the Home Secretary in the UK). I was amazed that she’d turn up to a small place like 'our' village.. She’s a local though and has family in the area. We were told that when they had bad flooding and landslides in and around the village in 2006 that she was there in three hours and she mobilised all the government aid and support. Think she’s on the ball. After she’d finished she walked by us accompanied by a couple of heavies.

Ainhoa
After this we went to Ainhoa (above), a beautiful village on the border, and from there across into Spain to fill up the car with diesel. After this, we came back into France and stopped in a small oak forest where we put the travel rug down in the shade of a big tree and we fell asleep for a while in the heat. The dog was the first one to start snoring, closely followed by – well, I’ll let you guess!
St Jean de Luz
After this we went to St Jean de Luz to walk some of the lunch off along the front. Finding a space was hard – it was almost like summer – and we ended up parking just behind the front in a shady avenue with some great houses but, knowing what we know now, the prices would be telephone numbers. We trolled along the front until we found a spot with some shade – it was very hot with not a cloud in the sky. Big waves were rolling in and there were a few jet-skis out surfing the big waves. Fun to watch. We stayed there for quite a while eventually coming back at about 7pm.

* At the time of writing (Sept 2009) MAM - as she's known here - is the Minister of Justice.

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